Major higher education reforms to continue in 2014

After decades of neglect and underfunding, the revitalisation of higher education in Africa began at the start of the 21st century, following global acknowledgement of the importance of universities to development at the UNESCO 1998 World Conference on Higher Education.

Effective reform, however, really began around 2005 and continued through 2013 in several key areas, resulting in some significant developments. Most of these will continue to evolve in 2014 and beyond.

This article highlights a few of the reforms and draws attention to possible consequences that could arise from them.


There is concerted agreement that, because of the disparate higher education systems in Africa, there is a need to harmonise the sector to ensure equivalency and comparability of qualifications across the continent, to facilitate the promotion of quality and – in particular – the mobility of staff and students within the region.

This is what led the African Union Commission, or AUC, to enunciate its African Higher Education Harmonisation Strategy in 2007.

One of the initiatives under that strategy is the revision of the Arusha Convention for the recognition of qualifications across Africa, which was originally adopted in 1981 but which was not really operational.

A revision process of the convention, undertaken under the joint aegis of UNESCO and the AUC, was started in 2007 but progress has been slow.

However, there is every likelihood that the revised convention will be adopted in 2014 at the next Conference of Ministers of Education of the African Union, COMEDAF. This would provide a great boost to the harmonisation process.

The Tuning Africa pilot initiative, which started in 2011, is another harmonisation activity about to be successfully completed.

It forms part of the Africa-European Union Strategic partnership and aims to apply the well-established ‘Tuning’ methodology – a collaborative, consultative process involving academics, employers and other stakeholders to improve curricula and enhance student competencies.

The pilot phase, which involved some 60 universities, covered five undergraduate subject areas – teacher training, medicine, agriculture, and civil and mechanical engineering – with each coordinated by a university in one of the five sub-regions of Africa.

The next phase of Tuning, from 2014 to 2020, will start this year and the plan is to extend the methodology to additional universities, undertake more in-depth work in the selected five disciplines by considering postgraduate level, and possibly have additional disciplines included.

This is an interesting initiative that, in addition to assisting in harmonisation, could lead to significant quality improvement and relevance for African higher education.

The proposed creation of an African Higher Education and Research Space is yet another major harmonisation initiative, based to a large extent on the Bologna process in Europe but modified to the African context.

It was initiated by ADEA – the Association for the Development of Education in Africa – with the collaboration of the AUC and the Association of African Universities, or AAU, following the 2009 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education.

Several activities were undertaken in 2011 and 2012, which resulted in a draft summary report in 2013. The report has yet to be published and processed through the various regional organisations – COMEDAF, the AAU etc. This requires concerted efforts by ADEA, AUC and AAU.

Hopefully, 2014 will see the start of the creation of an African Higher Education and Research Space.

Harmonisation of African higher education is meant to increase regional mobility for graduate studies and employment.

However, as the harmonisation process closely follows the international trends in Europe and elsewhere, it could also make it easier for graduates from Africa to go for postgraduate studies or take up employment in the North, thus exacerbating the brain drain from Africa.

It is next to impossible to restrain the mobility of people around the world and the solution to brain drain from Africa lies with African governments, who should aim to make their countries safe and attractive to study, live and work. In several countries in Africa, this is already happening.

Quality assurance

Improving quality is perhaps the most pressing need for higher education institutions in Africa.

This is what prompted the German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, in 2006 to start cooperation with the Inter-University Council for East Africa, or IUCEA, to promote quality assurance in East African higher education institutions.

The choice of IUCEA was perhaps strategic. Like DAAD, IUCEA is an association of higher education institutions funded mainly by member countries of the East African Community.

Several activities including training of trainers, evaluation of study programmes, establishing quality assurance units in institutions and preparing a handbook on quality assurance, were undertaken.

The successful implementation of the programme in East Africa led DAAD to initiate, in 2013, a similar programme in West and Central Africa with the collaboration of the African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education, CAMES – an organisation that groups 19 Francophone African countries.

Quality assurance is particularly important for Francophone universities and significant quality activities are expected in 2014.

The AUC developed the African Quality Rating Mechanism – AQRM – as part of its higher education harmonisation strategy. A pilot phase, launched in 2010, involved 32 universities completing a self-rating questionnaire, in English, covering all operational aspects of the institution.

Based on the responses received, the AUC has revised its questionnaire, which is now available in English and French, and launched the next phase of AQRM in October 2013. Another major change from the pilot phase is that the AUC plans to have an external review of at least a sample of the participating universities.

The second phase will be operational in 2014 and it could become an important complement to other quality assurance initiatives in African higher education.

A further interesting initiative in promoting quality assurance in African higher education, albeit on a smaller scale, has been Europe-Africa Quality Connect – a collaborative project between the European University Association, or EUA, and the AAU, funded by the European Commission.

It involved replicating the EUA’s well-established Institutional Evaluation Programme, or IEP, to five pilot African universities. The project necessitated evaluation visits to the selected institutions by evaluation teams comprising members from both Africa and Europe.

The project ended in September 2012 and was considered highly successful by the AAU, EUA and all the participating universities and evaluators. The AAU has been seeking funds to extend the evaluation exercise to more African universities in 2014.

Again, the IEP-type evaluation programme could be a useful complement to other quality assurance initiatives and should be supported.

In view of the hype created around the global ranking of universities, and the fact that only a handful of African universities appear in the rankings, there appears to be a misconception in Africa that the quality of a higher education institution should be judged by whether or not it is globally ranked.

It is well known that most of the global ranking criteria are heavily biased towards research, give hardly any weight to teaching and ignoring service to the community. Yet both teaching and community service are vital for Africa’s development.

The objectives of African higher education institutions should be: to provide the skilled human resources required for their country’s development; to undertake research to solve the myriad developmental problems facing their region; and to engage with the community to meet internationally-agreed development goals.

Institutional quality should be judged by ‘fitness for purpose’, not whether universities are globally ranked. Any attempt to lure African higher education institutions to be globally ranked could not only lead to a waste of resources but would also be inappropriate.

Centres of excellence

The concept of creating a centre of excellence in an identified area in a country, which acts as a hub that networks with other institutions in that field in different countries, is now a well-established concept in Africa for promoting regional collaboration and sharing limited resources in running postgraduate programmes and undertaking research.

In 2009 DAAD of Germany launched five such centres of excellence across Africa in different areas. Around the same time the New Partnership for Africa's Development, or NEPAD, created two regional networks of centres of excellence in water sciences – one in Southern Africa and the other in West Africa.

More recently, the AUC launched a similar initiative known as the Pan-African University, or PAU, which comprises five institutes in five thematic areas in five African regions.

The first three institutes that became operational in 2013 are in Kenya (basic sciences, technology and innovation), Cameroon (governance, humanities and social sciences) and Nigeria (earth and life sciences), all of them located in existing universities.

The institute in Algeria (water and energy sciences) is being established and the location of the one in Southern Africa (space sciences) has yet to be identified.

The PAU is receiving support from the European Union and a number of countries. In 2013 the African Development Bank provided US$45 million to the PAU, giving it a significant boost. The year 2014 should witness consolidation and expansion of the PAU’s operations.

Also in 2013, the World Bank launched its Africa Centres of Excellence – ACE – project, which aims to create 15 centres of excellence in West and Central Africa. The project is being run in collaboration with the AAU.

The 15 centres in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo – with no less than seven of them located in Nigeria – were selected in late 2013 after competitive bidding and external evaluation, and are in areas of agriculture, health, and science and technology.

Each centre, located within a university, will be provided with funds amounting to between US$4 million and US$8 million. Work at the centres, after approval by the World Bank, is expected to start in 2014.

Centres of excellence undoubtedly offer many advantages in regional collaboration, but they also give rise to challenges.

These multi-institutional, multi-national centres must take into account the ‘political will' at both the institutional and country levels, as several such networking initiatives have faltered when changes in leadership in networking institutions or countries have occurred.

Also, the success of a centre is dependent not only on effective management at the hub institution but equally at the various networked institutions, which is not always easy to achieve.

Finally, almost all the centres of excellence are heavily financed by development partners or donor agencies. It is therefore vital to consider the long-term financial sustainability of such centres when donor support is not available.

* Goolam Mohamedbhai is former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, former president of the International Association of Universities, and former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius. He is currently a higher education consultant, including for the World Bank.